Rescue at the Yorkville Whitewater Park

yorkville rescue

I watched the canoe’s descent of the whitewater park out the front window of the store.  The paddlers navigated the top section cleanly but capsized in the wave train in the lower half of the park.  Both paddlers popped to the surface on the downstream side of their canoe.  Once they were oriented, they should have quickly gotten to either the upstream side of the boat or to an end.  Unfortunately, the only unsafe place to be is where the paddlers stayed, as they were pushed by the current towards the rocks.

The canoe wrapped on the rocks and from my vantage point, 150 yards away, it looked like both paddlers were safe but stuck on the midstream pile of rocks.  The pinned boat didn’t look like something the paddlers were going to be able fix on their own so I quickly threw on my paddling gear and grabbed the solo canoe off the rack.

As I paddled closer the pin site, I saw two additional people on the rock.  I grabbed the eddy below the pin and saw that what looked from above as a simpe boat pin was in fact much more serious.  The stern paddler was pinned by the canoe gunwales with his back against the rock and the gunwales against his chest and legs with his chin right at water level.  If the canoe slipped just 3 inches lower, we would have a head down pin and a truly life threatening situation. One of the bystanders was supporting the pinned paddler’s head and the other was trying to use a paddle to pry the canoe off the victim.  A couple of walkers had stopped on the adjacent sidewalk so I shouted for them to call 911 in case the situation deteriorated.

With the full force of the river pushing against the 16 1/2 foot canoe, using the paddle simply wasn’t working.  Part of the issue was that the paddler was pinned by both gunwales, so prying with the paddle only moved one gunwale and transferred the force to the other gunwale and to the victim.  There was enough force on the victim’s chest that we did use the paddle to relieve some of the pressure, easing his breathing.

With the victim somewhat stable, we tried a few different ways to free him, all unsuccessful because they either caused pain to the  victim or were lacked the strength to move the boat. 

The police and fire departments arrived and then began to show their complete lack of preparedness for the situation.  Their only idea was to throw ropes at us.  We didn’t want ropes, and they obviously didn’t have a plan for what to do if they got a rope to us.  At one point there were simultaneously three separate ropes in the water and they eventually managed to get 2 of the 3 ropes pinned in the river.

As ropes were being flung in our general direction, I waded out below the end of the canoe that protruded  into the current and attempted to push it upstream.  Fortunately, the river was just shallow enough and had enough solid footholds that I was able to put my shoulder into the gunwales and relieve enough pressure on the canoe that the other 2 rescuers were able to lift the victim from behind the boat and onto the rock. 

Immediate crisis averted.  Now we needed to get the victim across the current to the awaiting EMTs.  The solo canoe was not going to be a good choice for transporting two people.  Since everyone was stable and safe, I paddled the canoe to shore and ran to the top of the park to grab a better craft.  I took a Liquid Logic Versa Board, a combintion sit on top and stand up paddleboard that turned out to be an excellent rescue platform.  I paddled back down to the accident site, loaded the victim onto the bow and did a quick little ferry across to the medical staff.  While the EMTs were attending to the victim, I paddled back and shuttled the other paddler and rescuers off the rock.

The pinned paddler suffered some very severe bruising to his ankle and lower leg but received no other significant injury.  The canoe however did not fare so well.  It stayed pinned for a few days until we were able to set up a z-drag and pull it off the rock.  It was a total loss, gunwales broken in 4 places, thwarts and seats broken out and the kevlar torn or punctured in several places. At the same time we were able to cut loose the 2 ropes left pinned by the fire department.

Be aggresive in your own self rescue and avoid the downstream side of a boat while swimming.

Rescue squads have the best intentions but when it comes to technical rescues, they may not be prepared and when it comes to swiftwater rescues, you shouldn’t count on 911 to solve your problem.

Sometimes it’s just a matter of the right people being in the right place at the right time.

 Next step–Fix the problemOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

After the publicity of the accident and concerns raised by paddlers about the placement of the pile of rocks in the center of the main current and the potential entrapment issues, the state agreed to make changes.  They showed up with this giant loader.  It took a few hours but we were able to reposition the rock pile towards river right, just out of the main flow.  It would have been much easier and we could have done a better job if the machine had a grappling arm  since were only able to push or pull the rocks and weren’t able to lift and reposition them  Since we made the changes, I’ve not heard of another major pin here.